Naomi Osaka: World number one spot and more majors within her grasp

Naomi Osaka (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images) /

Finishing as year-end number one for the first time and adding to her two major titles should be among the top goals for Naomi Osaka in 2020.

Naomi Osaka has a new coach for 2020, a step the Japanese star will hope can lead to more consistency in her bid to return to the top of women’s tennis.

A 2019 season on the WTA Tour season that started with a glorious success at the Australian Open and led to her becoming the first Asian player to reach world number 1 did not play out as smoothly as she and her fans may have expected.

Barring the WTA Finals where she had to withdraw with a shoulder injury, Osaka had a good Asian swing to conclude the season. She added two titles to her Australian Open trophy from the start of the year, including the Pan Pacific Open, which gave her a first crown in Japan.

But in between that magnificent start and fast finish was a long and alarming mid-season slump that saw her fail to make an impact at the French Open (out in R3) and Wimbledon, where she lost in the first round.

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Form had deserted her and injuries were also causing a problem, Belinda Bencic ending her defence of the US Open in the fourth round after Osaka had entered the tournament battling a knee issue.

Bianca Andreescu went on to win the tournament and the Canadian teenager could form women’s tennis’ next big rivalry with Osaka over the coming years if the two players can ensure they are fit and firing.

Prior to the last Grand Slam of the year in Flushing Meadows, Osaka had openly discussed her struggles and how she had, during that mid-season slump, stopped enjoying the game.

She felt she was putting too much pressure on herself over results but believed coming through that difficult period had proven beneficial to her mental approach and on-court displays.

It was also a turbulent year with her coaching situation. Following her Melbourne win, Osaka ended had her partnership with coach Sascha Bajin, who shortly before the decision was named WTA Coach of the Year for his role in the 22-year-old’s rise to the top.

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Jermaine Jenkins replaced him but Osaka also halted that partnership after the US Open with her father Leonard Francois stepping in to see out the season.

Now, she will work with Belgian Wim Fissette, whose top former players coached include Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep, the current Wimbledon champion.

Naomi Osaka knows her up-and-down year will still be considered a success when it is looked back on in the future. After all, a second Grand Slam title, two spells at number one and a final position in the world rankings of 3 is the type of year most WTA players can only dream of.

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But Naomi Osaka, under Fissette, will also be aware she has the game to produce even more and will be seeking a year of stability, plus success.

Having that consistency with injuries requires an element of luck, but performances are under her control.

And after rival Ash Barty pulled away towards the end of the year to finish as world number one and WTA Player of the Year, it is well within Osaka’s power, without any sustained periods of poor form or injuries, to add to her Slam total and achieve a year-end position at the rankings summit for the first time.

Osaka wants it and told reporters after a thrilling October win over Andreescu (which ended the Canadian’s huge winning streak) on her way to  the China Open title that it was a result which provided a reminder she was “still here after people counted me out”. She amusingly called her slump “the Europe thing” and is clearly keen to leave it in the past.

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Osaka has huge ranking points to defend early on as the Australian Open, the scene of her biggest 2019 success, starts next month, so a fast start is essential.

It is clear her best major chances will come in Melbourne and New York. Up to now, all five of her WTA titles and each of her seven final appearances on tour have come on hard courts.

And while that makes French Open or Wimbledon glory a stretch for 2020, she will need to show signs of progress on those surfaces and perhaps achieve what would be a milestone of winning a WTA Premier or International grass or clay event over the course of the year.

Given her struggles on those two surfaces in 2019 and the low base she has to build from, any improvement would have a positive rankings effect in her mission to chase down Barty at the top.

The Olympic Games in her home country will also be an enormous occasion for Osaka, who has great opportunities within her grasp going into the new season.

With the Asian swing ensuring she carries some form and momentum into the campaign, along with a new coach in place, expectations may be higher than ever.

Those expectations, along with the close scrutiny of her form and the intense endorsement work she completes as one of the world’s most marketable athletes, comes with the territory of being a multiple time Grand Slam champion. Osaka may be better placed to cope this time.

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After coming through a season that did not go completely to plan, Naomi Osaka is well capable of making 2020 a year to remember.